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Building a non-BCS program

You're a successful assistant coach at a solid BCS program, however, your resume isn't nearly good enough to get a dream job. Wanting to wet your feet as a head coach, hoping to climb your way up to that dream job, you take over a tradition weak non-BCS team. The school has minimal resources, plays in a 30,000 seat stadium, yet there is potential. The school is located in a recruiting hotbed, with a growing population surrounding the campus and plans to upgrade the football facilities. It's a risk, though, since the team is coming off a 3-win season and hasn't had a winning season in nearly four years. Their bowl drought is much larger, not making the postseason in ten. The climb will be a battle, but you're ready to go at it.

When building a non-BCS program, you need to look at the best way to utilize what you have. Some programs have done this quite well, while others seem destined to toil in mediocrity. The program we're looking at -- not a real one, by the way -- fits in with the latter. So what tasks must a coach undertake when trying to build a stagnant program? Well firstly, it depends on the talent level. Some programs underperform, others have a dearth of talent and need a lot more than just motivation and good coaching. For the sake of this article, we'll say talent has been there, but the program has struggled living up to the potential on the football field.

This is something familiar to Utah fans, as we experienced this type of change with Urban Meyer. The year before he arrived, Utah went 5-6, pretty much sucked and that cost Ron McBride his job. With basically the same players, Meyer went 10-2, won an outright championship for the first time in 50-years and guided the Utes to their first top-25 finish in 9 years. So this fictional program is one that has talent, but for whatever reason, it just hasn't panned out on the field. That's the job of the head coach, to find a way to mold that raw, unsuccessful talent into something dramatically different.

Unlike some non-BCS programs, this one doesn't need to schedule just for the sake of making money. These bodybag games that send teams to Norman, Oklahoma or Gainsville, Florida are not necessary. So you can put together a schedule that benefits your program in different ways.

  • A tough game to toughen the team up. This is not always a bad idea, since your team can learn a lot when playing a far superior team. It doesn't have to be a game against #1 LSU, but a game against a solid BCS team. And if the team is lucky, they could pull off the stunner.

  • A weak opponent to soften the possibility of injury. It's a no-brainer, the tougher the team the more likelihood of an injury. They're bigger, they're stronger and they sure as hell hit harder. The weak teams, though? They're smaller, at times weaker and even though they hit hard, it's not like getting slammed by a brick house. More like a tough shed.

  • A poor BCS team. Hey, a win over a BCS team is a win over a BCS team, right? So what if it's Duke or North Carolina, it's still a BCS team and that's still pretty huge for a program trying to find its identity. Imagine if Utah State could manage to knock off a BCS team...or any team for that matter.

Once the schedule is in place, you've got to set the course for program goals. Now obviously you're not going to come out of the gate expecting a BCS bowl berth and a top-5 finish. But every team, no matter how bad, should aim for a winning record. It's only 7-wins and with a schedule tailored to this, it is very possible.

So it's your first season and the schedule is mixed with a tough BCS team, a not-so-tough BCS team, a mediocre non-BCS team and a D1-AA team, along with the regular conference slate. Last year the team dropped all of its out of conference games, but won 3 in conference to finish the conference season 3-5. Not good, but it does offer some hope.

Now this season, with better coaching, the team still manages to lose that tough out of conference BCS game, but manages to beat the poor BCS team, the mediocre non-BCS team and the D1-AA team. That equals last year's record and the conference schedule hasn't even started yet. So once that rolls around, the better coached team lives up to its talent level and manages to win 5 conference games, to finish with a record of 8-4. Just like that, the once poor football program is in a bowl game and owns a winning record.

Sounds easy, doesn't it? Well it kind of does and it really isn't entirely realistic, though it has happened. Coaches like Urban Meyer at Utah or even Dick Tomey at San Jose State managed to do that -- and more -- in their first seasons with a poor program. The talent didn't change, but the coaching did and it paid off. This isn't to say it's this easy for every non-BCS program, because it isn't. But the foundation can be laid with the right leadership on the sidelines and if you are a non-BCS team, that's where hope should lie.

The fact is, I think many non-BCS programs just make the wrong hire and it does their programs no good. But this is the difficult aspect of college football, especially for these programs, because a hire is a gamble. Utah had the luxury of knowing what it was getting because Urban Meyer had success at Bowling Green. However, it wasn't like that when they hired Ron McBride or Kyle Whittingham -- two coaches without head coaching experience. Both turned out to be decent hires, with it still unknown if Whitt is anything better. But for smaller non-BCS schools, they have to take a risk on an assistant, hoping he has the ability to build the program and make it more attractive to other coaches if they lose their head coach to another school.

And that is ultimately where non-BCS programs struggle the most, because unlike BCS teams, they rarely are capable of poaching other head coaches from other schools. So how do you -- if you're stuck hiring assistants -- know if you have the right guy? Well firstly, it doesn't hurt if the guy has been around for a while. Urban Meyer was an assistant under some great coaches, working his way up by coaching at Ohio State, Colorado State and Notre Dame before he landed a job at Bowling Green. Kyle Whittingham is the longest serving coach with the Utes in the modern era of Utah football. But really, it is a risk and the success of a program depends on that risk. If the department fails and hires a coach not ready to take over a team, then it takes a step back once again. However, if the opposite happens, then it's in position to build a solid non-BCS program.

Here's a look at some familiar teams and the paths their coaches took.

  • Utah State, Brent Guy. Guy was the defensive coordinator at Arizona State, however, had ties to Utah State as a linebackers coach in the 90s. Yet at Arizona State, it wasn't as if his defenses were known for being great. In fact, Arizona was far more an offensive oriented team, which may explain the fact he hasn't done anything in Logan yet.

  • San Diego State, Chuck Long. I know I've ranked Long as a poor coach before, but I actually think he has the resume of a good one. He was Oklahoma's offensive coordinator and had great success there, yet it hasn't really spilled over to San Diego State. Regardless, it wasn't a bad hire for the Aztecs based on what he had done and may prove to be a decent one in years to come.

  • UNLV, Mike Sanford. An interesting hire for the Rebels and one that hasn't lived up to its hype. Now Utah fans are familiar with Sanford, as he was the offensive coordinator here for two seasons when the Utes went 22-2. But it was Urban Meyer who saved Sanford, as he was pretty much being pushed out of the door at Stanford after a horrible season in 2002. Outside of Utah's offensive performance in 2003 and 2004, Sanford doesn't have much to hang his hat on and that has proven to be a problem, as Sanford could be canned this season.

  • BYU, Bronco Mendenhall. On paper, Mendenhall was a bad hire. His defenses at Oregon State, New Mexico and BYU were not good. Yet he seems to be a completely different head coach, as he's guided BYU to their best two seasons in a very long time. Bronco, though, had trouble winning prior to taking over the Cougar program, as he was the defensive coordinator through the worst stretch of BYU football in the last 30 years, didn't do much of anything at New Mexico and was pushed out the door with the entire Oregon State football staff in 1997.

It's tough for non-BCS teams to build their programs, because they don't have nearly the money or the capabilities. But it is possible and it all starts with the hiring of a good head coach. Someone who can motivate not only the players but an apathetic fanbase. If that happens, many non-BCS programs can do what Utah, Boise State and Hawaii have been able to do. The problem is, it's not that easy and for every Dan Hawkins and Urban Meyer, there is a Mike Sanford and a Vic Koenning.